The production of wine has always been impacted by changes in the weather. Winemakers refer to a year’s vintage as hot and dry, for example, when conditions create higher sugar contents that result in a fuller bodied wine. That’s the way it’s always gone; some years were better than others.
The global challenges facing the wine industry as a result of climate change are different in scale and severity. Hail and heat, fires and floods… France recently saw its smallest harvest since 1957; costing the industry approximately $2 billion in sales. One vineyard that normally produces up to 50,000 bottles of champagne produced nothing at all after drenching rains and a heatwave. The California wildfires of 2020, and similar events from Australia to Argentina, and across Europe not only destroy vines; smoke can ruin grapes up to 100 miles away. In 2022 Portugal experienced a particularly severe fire season, resulting in nearly 260,000 acres burned.
Why are wines particularly vulnerable? Many agricultural products are far less fragile or susceptible to minor changes in weather. Wine, however, has always been valued precisely because of its sensitive nature. As a result, viticulture is on the front line of climate adaptation.
In the world’s oldest demarcated wine-making region, ancient traditions drive responses to contemporary challenges.
Portugal’s Ancient Traditions Contribute to Climate Resilience
Portugal has a wine-making history dating back two thousand years. Despite its small size, roughly the same as the US state of Indiana, Portugal is the fifth-largest wine producer in the European Union and the eleventh-largest in the world.
Portugal’s wine industry is deeply interwoven with the country’s socio-economic landscape, closely associated with its local cultural heritage and traditions, and plays a pivotal role in local economic and social stability in rural areas. Viticulture is responsible for 1.5% of Portugal’s GDP. Portugal is also the world’s largest producer and exporter of cork, with exports of €1.133 billion in 2021.
It’s long winemaking tradition, coastal location, varied ecosystems, and seafaring history have contributed to over 250 native grape varieties in Portugal. There are 31 DOC (Denominação de Origem Controlada) wine regions and 14 IPR (Indicação de Proveniência Regulamentada) wine regions across the country.
How do Portugal’s ancient winemaking techniques shape climate adaptation strategies? Here are are ways three very different winemaking regions — Alentejo, the Douro River Valley, and Pico Island in the Azores — are drawing upon ancient traditions to adapt to contemporary conditions.
These regions exemplify the challenges faced by the wine industry due to climate change, and how they draw bothinspiration and sustainable practices from their rich winemaking heritage to secure a sustainable future.
Alentejo: Nurturing Tradition for Climate Resilience
The Alentejo region is the largest wine region in Portugal, accounting for 30% of the country’s total wine production. Renowned for its full-bodied red wines, Alentejo is diversifying its portfolio with increased emphasis on white and rosé wines, reflecting both market trends and climate adaptability. This diversification may help winemakers adapt to rising temperatures.
The region, in southern Portugal, is characterized by a hot and dry climate, at risk of desertification. Alentejo’s winemakers have long drawn inspiration from ancient techniques passed down through generations to adapt and thrive in this challenging environment. One of those ancient techniques is the use of traditional clay amphorae, known as talhas. This ancient method of fermentation and aging imparts unique flavors to the wines and allows winemakers to better control the impact of temperature variation, a critical factor in the face of climate change.
Rainwater harvesting and the construction of intricate water channels, known as levadas, have been practiced in Alentejo for centuries. These techniques have efficiently distributed water to crops and communities, ensuring a sustainable water supply even during droughts. Thanks to these traditional practices, Alentejo has managed to cope with water scarcity better than many other regions.
The region’s embrace of organic and biodynamic farming practices not only contributes to environmental sustainability but also enhances soil health and biodiversity. Alentejo is a biodiversity hotspot, home to numerous endemic plant and animal species. The region’s diverse flora, fauna and agroforestry traditions serve as a natural buffer against climate challenges, contributing to ecosystem resilience. Over 135 plant species can be found per square meter in Alentejo’s cork oak woodlands.
Adding to Alentejo’s allure as a wine destination is its significant growth in wine tourism, attracting over 1 million visitors in 2019. Tourists flock to the region to immerse themselves in its rich winemaking heritage and experience its unique terroir firsthand.
Alentejo has witnessed the rise of collaborative initiatives involving local communities, conservation organizations, and governmental bodies. These partnerships work toward preserving traditional practices, restoring degraded ecosystems, and fostering climate-resilient agriculture. Notably, the Green Heart of Cork project, led by World Wildlife Fund (WWF), has been recognized as a successful model for nature restoration, contributing to climate resilience.
Douro River Valley: Ancient Terraces Guarding the Future
The Douro River Valley stretches nearly 400 miles across northern Portugal east of Porto, and is the oldest demarcated wine region in the world, dating back to 1756. Its ancient terraced vineyards showcase Portugal’s wine industry’s resilience and adaptability.
As rising temperatures and extreme weather threaten grape varieties and viticulture, winemakers in the Douro have turned to their unique centuries-old methods to provide the resilience that is their hallmark. Vineyards in the Douro River Valley are built on beautiful, stacked stone terraces known as socalcos, built by hand over centuries, to prevent soil erosion on the steep hilly slopes and to optimize sun exposure for grape growth. This method evolved over hundreds of years for the sustainable cultivation of grapes in the challenging terrain of the region. They play a vital role in preventing erosion, optimizing water usage, and maximizing sun exposure, crucial aspects in adapting to changing climate patterns.
Additionally, stone walls supporting the terraces act as heat sinks, moderating temperature fluctuations and protecting the vines.These ingenious structures navigate the rugged terrain, prevent soil erosion, and optimize grape cultivation.
The region’s focus on indigenous grape varieties promotes biodiversity and reduces the need for chemical interventions. This allows many wineries to practice organic and biodynamic farming methods, promoting soil health and eliminating harmful pesticides. Numerous wineries in the Douro Valley hold certifications from sustainable wine organizations, like the Sustainable Winegrowing Program, further reinforcing their commitment to responsible viticulture.
The traditional foot-treading method, employed in Port wine production, gently extracts juice from grapes in stone lagares. This technique ensures better control over tannin levels, contributing to the complex and well-balanced flavors of Port wine.
Over 74,000 acres of vineyards in the Douro Valley are dedicated to Port wine production. The region’s sustainability efforts encompass an integrated approach to land and resource management, preserving its cultural landscape.
The Douro River Valley offers a captivating journey through history, stunning landscapes, and a commitment to sustainable winemaking practices. For those who love nature, conservation, and travel, this wine region promises a delightful experience. Nat Hab’s Paddling Portugal’s River of Wine trip offers an unmatched opportunity to kayak the river by day and enjoy food and wine in authentic Portuguese vineyard estates or quinta at night. The valley’s storied heritage and breathtaking terraced vineyards are emblematic of the resilience and adaptability of Portugal’s wine industry. What better way to see them than from the water by day and from the inside at night?
Pico Island: Stony Resilience on Windy Volcanic Rock
The Azores archipelago, made up of nine islands, is located in the Atlantic Ocean, midway between Europe and North America. The Azores wine region is made up of three appellations of origin, Graciosa, Biscoitos (on Ilha Terceira) and Pico.
Pico Island is home to the highest point in the Republic of Portugal, volcanic Mount Pico rises 7713 feet above sea level and last erupted in 1720. The island’s volcanic soils and maritime influences create a unique terroir, which was recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004, as the “Landscape of Pico Island Vineyard Culture.”
Verdelho is the most famous and most grown grape variety in the Azores. It is thought to be originally from Sicily or Cyprus and was brought to the Azores by the Franciscan Friars who cultivated it throughout the islands.
Pico Island’s winemakers are pioneers in climate adaptation, employing centuries-old sustainable practices based on the island’s delicate ecosystem. The island’s vineyards are planted in what’s called currais, traditional stone-walled enclosures that protect the vines from salty ocean winds and retain heat. Sustainable water management techniques, such as rainwater harvesting, are essential for coping with the island’s limited freshwater resources.
The number of wine producers more than doubled between 2015 and 2020, reaching over 500. Wine production grew from 73,968 gallons in 2016 to 153,220 gallons in 2019. Wine tourism and whale watching are the main activities here, as Pico lies in what WWF has dubbed a blue corridor or whale superhighway.
See for Yourself: Experience Portugal’s Ancient Traditions & Support Local Communities through Wine Tourism in Portugal
Portugal’s winemaking regions of Alentejo, the Douro River Valley, and Pico Island exemplify the challenges faced by the global wine industry in the era of climate change. By embracing sustainability and adapting to the changing climate, these regions are not only preserving their ancient winemaking traditions but also exemplifying adaptative strategies for the industry.
The artistry of Portugal’s winemakers lies not only in the mastery of modern techniques but also in their reverence for ancient practices that have stood the test of time. The marriage of tradition and modernity in the Portuguese wine industry reflects a harmonious union between human innovation and nature’s resilience.
As climate change continues to drive temperatures higher and increase extreme weather, the proactive and innovative efforts of Portugal’s winemakers offer a beacon of hope for other wine regions worldwide. Through sustainable viticulture practices, the preservation of biodiversity, and responsible resource management, the Portuguese wine industry demonstrates that it is possible to savor the world’s finest wines while also savoring a sustainable future.